The transformation of the health and social care system as a result of digital technology and disruptive innovation is helping to create a 21st century health service, according to leading experts speaking at a recent event.

From AI to 3D printing and virtualisation to automation, there are new trends emerging at pace which are shaping the NHS and social care of the future.

As the current Covid-19 pandemic adds further emphasis to the role of digital innovation within the health system, North East Futures UTC, North East Business Futures and Accenture partnered to deliver an online event – ‘Dr Robot will see you now’-  to dissect the challenges and opportunities this presents.

Guest speaker Matthew Swindells, NHS England’s former Deputy Chief Executive, joined the discussion to provide an honest and fascinating look at the shift in the way care is being delivered as a result of digital technologies being developed and implemented at unprecedented speed to help meet the demands of the health system.

He said: “The bringing together of health and care will be one of the big learnings that comes out of the pandemic and technology will play a key role within that. We have the opportunity to significantly disrupt the way that health and care is delivered around the world and I think we will see a big step forward in the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation, but with this will also come questions about how you test that technology.

“With this move to technology, there is also a risk of some people being left behind. We have to come out of this with a sense of what a resilient NHS looks like and we can provide the technology that can support all sections of society, so people aren’t left behind. The real trick for the NHS as we emerge from lockdown is not to go back to way things were done before, and also not to assume everything is solved with the technology that has been adopted – it’s somewhere in between this that will reflect what a 21st century NHS needs to look like.”

The ‘Dr Robot will see you now’ online event, which was funded by a grant from The Northstar Foundation, was attended by delegates from industry, members of the public and, importantly, students from the North East Futures UTC.

As a University Technical College, the school balances a strong core curriculum with technical qualifications to give their students a more rounded experience. North East Futures UTC has a strong focus on filling the skills gap in the digital technology and healthcare science sectors.

Matthew’s early career path within the NHS saw him move from being a Chief Information Officer at a hospital trust to a Chief Executive – a move which was relatively unheard of at the time. As the health and social care system continues to embrace digital technology, there are many opportunities for the workforce of the future to play a role in this transformation.

Offering advice to students at the event, Matthew added: “The connection of people, process and technology is coming together across the health system. There is always going to be a space for people who are absolutely at the leading edge of technology.

“All managers are expected to be technology and data savvy. If you want to be a technologist and want to make a real difference and want to be at the top table – be interested in policy, be interested in workflow design, be interested in change management and think about how technology will transform the experience and the outcome for patients and for clinicians.”

North East Futures UTC applies learning to real-life contexts and is supported by high-profile regional businesses – including Accenture – to give students a boost into the healthcare and digital technology sectors.

Mark Larsen, Managing Director at Accenture Newcastle, who hosted the session with Matthew, said: “Accenture is proud to support the UTC. It is very important that technology and healthcare are championed with younger generations given how important these sectors are to the future of industry and society.

“This event provided the opportunity to have a forward-looking discussion around the role of technology in healthcare and the confluence of those two areas, which is at the heart of what the UTC is aiming to achieve.

“This is a particularly important subject at a time when we’re seeing new technologies being catalysed and accelerated in the healthcare sector. We’ve witnessed trends emerging across the world, which are driven through necessity, as a result of the pandemic. Companies and organisations are looking forward and don’t want to return to previous models and they want to see if they can accelerate and move to new ways of working in the longer term.

“There are challenges that come with digital technologies, particularly in the health and social care sector where there will always be a need for personal connection and empathy between clinicians and patients. But we’re recognising now more than ever, the important role that technology plays, not just from the point of view of medical equipment, but also the opportunity to improve processes and patient experience as they move through the system.”

Professor Michael Whitaker, NE Futures UTC, Chair of the Board of Trustees, added: “We’re thrilled to have hosted the second in our series of North East Business Futures events which, thanks to Matthew and Mark’s input, offered a stimulating discussion around the importance of digital health technology.  Our students have gained a useful insight into the changing the face of the health service and the impact this will have as we come through the Covid-19 crisis.”